Why India shouldn’t ignore other extant species in its wild pursuit of African cheetahs

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Incredibly light on its feet, the incredibly fast cheetah is perhaps the only large mammal that was hunted to extinction in India by mid-century. Nearly 70 years after the world’s fastest cat disappeared from its forests, the top wild predator is set to re-enter the country’s forests – but this time, traveling from the African savannahs to central India – in one of the largest intercontinental animal translocations in recent years.

What perhaps sets the project apart is the scale at which it is executed. Around 50 cheetahs would be transferred from Namibia and South Africa over a five-year period, in line with the government’s action plan. The first batch of about eight Cheetahs is expected to arrive early next month. The founder stock will be given a home in the Kuno Pavlpur National Park (KNP) of Madhya Pradesh, spread over 748 km2.

The goal is to allow the cheetah to establish its truly self-sustaining population in Kuno, and then bring the rest of the animals to different stages. Given the time needed for the animal to establish its population and the very nature of the animal, which does not easily adapt to new environments, the stakes are indeed high.

CHEETAH AGAINST LION

The Asiatic cheetah that was wiped out from India in the 1960s is now found only in Iran and is listed as critically endangered. Since it is not possible to source the animal from Iran, India is about to bring in another subspecies of cheetah – the African cheetah, which can provide it with substantial numbers of suitable cheetahs during several years.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars to introduce African cheetahs from another continent to India, why can’t we conserve our own critically endangered native species?” says wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, who is currently CEO of the Bengaluru-based Metastring Foundation and coordinator of the Biodiversity Collaborative.

One such species is the Asiatic lion – whose only surviving population roams the now overcrowded forests of Gir and thousands of square kilometers of unprotected human-dominated habitats in Gujarat. The approximately 700 lions often referred to as the pride of India have fought off disease, disaster, poaching, encroachment and the pressure to live alongside a growing human population to recover from the brink of extinction.

MP Kuno National Park, where African cheetahs are now believed to be introduced, is the same site that was identified for the transfer of some Asiatic lions from Gir in 1995 and subsequently ordered by the Supreme Court to be set aside. implemented within six months in 2013 – a question that continues to challenge Indian wildlife conservators. The two big cats have been known to co-exist, but there are fears that bringing cheetahs will further push back the translocation of Asiatic lions from Gujarat.

“Having all the Asiatic lions as one population at one site makes it very vulnerable. It is very important that we use data and science to guide our conservation priorities.

Translocation of lions has not yet started although it is high on the agenda of the National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031 and the 2013 Supreme Court Order. It is extremely critical that at least another wild lion population be established in Kuno to mitigate risk. and improve its long-term conservation status,” says Chellam, who has been involved in Asiatic lion research and conservation since 1985.

DISAPPEARING PRAIRIES

According to the Ministry of the Environment, in addition to conserving the big cat, the Cheetah project itself will be a boon to the ecosystem. Cheetahs live in open plains; their habitat is primarily where their prey live – grasslands, scrub, and open forest systems, semi-arid environments, and temperatures that tend to be warmer than colder regimes. Thus, saving cheetahs would require saving not only its prey base comprising some endangered species, but also other endangered species from grassland and open forest ecosystems, some of which are on the brink of extinction.

The plan might reap long-term dividends, but that’s easier said than done. The looming challenge here is the rapid disappearance of Indian grasslands, which are regularly destroyed for commercial projects, and existing species struggling to survive. Cheetahs thrive in grasslands and open forests, and if India is to establish a long, self-sustaining population of the animal, it will need to prioritize managing its neglected grasslands first, not the other way around. .

“We are losing our grasslands and they are shrinking in every state. One can only hope the Cheetah Project helps bring attention to this much overlooked part of our ecosystem. Cheetah translocation is not a one-time exercise; the animal will also need enough space for its future expansion. The priority here is to preserve these meadows, to work with the breeders. And, we can start by removing the term ‘wastelands’ to prevent their degradation,” says Neha Sinha, conservation biologist at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

CONSERVATION PRIORITIES

As the first batch of this key species lands in India next month after completing quarantine in Namibia, it will be up to the country to provide a safe habitat for the animal. The savannahs of Africa are different from the grasslands of India, and it usually rains a lot more than in Africa – there are challenges that the fastest animal on earth will have to endure before its future generations make the leap. India a natural habitat.

Until then, it’s important that the grandeur of the whole project doesn’t take us away from what it originally set out to accomplish – conserving and protecting wildlife that is heading towards extinction, lest it end up being an exercise in futility. There are species of birds and animals like the Indian bustard or the caracal that are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, land pressure and other challenges created by the man who need immediate attention, and the current project must help India achieve the collective goal.

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